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America’s triumphant return to space? Or 1981 all over again? | COMMENTARY

A SpaceX Falcon 9, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the Dragon crew capsule, lifts off from Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Saturday May 30. For the first time in nearly a decade, astronauts blasted towards orbit aboard an American rocket from American soil, a first for a private company.
A SpaceX Falcon 9, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the Dragon crew capsule, lifts off from Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Saturday May 30. For the first time in nearly a decade, astronauts blasted towards orbit aboard an American rocket from American soil, a first for a private company. (John Raoux/AP)

The launch of U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX capsule and rocket on May 30 was a milestone in human spaceflight, marking the first time humans have flown into space on a commercial vehicle.

More important for U.S. space interests, the flight to the space station with humans is the first from U.S. soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, the end of a near decadelong embarrassment of paying Russia $80 million to fly a single astronaut into orbit.

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The question is, what will become of this? Is this SpaceX launch a harbinger of a long-sought era of space tourism and routine access to space? I’d like to think so. But one must admit, this feels a lot like 1981.

NASA’s Space Shuttle program was launched with the promise of making access to space affordable and commonplace. The Space Shuttle fleet of four vehicles was to provide a cheap, biweekly ferry into low-Earth orbit.

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People from all walks of life were to hitch a ride. Journalists, artists, even “Sesame Street’s” Big Bird were on the shortlist to fly. The maiden launch of Space Shuttle Columbia in April 1981 was met with great fanfare, as to be expected, with an excitement not seen since the Apollo era of moon landings.

But shuttle design problems were immediately apparent. Far from cheap, the shuttles cost NASA about $450 million per mission. Far from reusable, the shuttles and their launch apparatus were so heavily damaged with each mission that launches were on average four times a year, not every other week. Then the dreams of space tourism ended abruptly with the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, killing all seven crew members, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

But much has changed in the nearly 40 years since the shuttles made their debut. The past 10 years have borne witness to the “NewSpace” movement, in which a diverse set of entrepreneurs share the goal of reducing the access price to space for pure commercial interests, independent of political motivations — in contrast to the decades-old “old space” partnerships of governments and military-oriented contractors. The competition has lowered cargo costs to nearly $1,000 per pound for some launch vehicles.

Lower access costs will translate into more humans traveling to space. And the International Space Station (ISS) may serve as a space hotel. NASA announced it was opening the International Space Station to “private astronauts,” a euphemism for thrill-seeking multi-millionaires. The move may represent the first moneymaking endeavor for the space station, a $150 billion investment that has produced arguably little data aside from the previously established knowledge that zero gravity is bad for your health.

Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain and founder of Bigelow Aerospace, already has an inflatable proto-hotel attached to the space station. In 2016, his company delivered the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the ISS using the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft. The BEAM has withstood micrometeorite damage for four years and now provides NASA with much needed storage space.

Bigelow Aerospace hopes to launch, by the mid-2020s, two lightweight inflatables, called B330s, each 55 feet long and 22 feet wide, which when linked together will create a commercial space hotel with double the cubic capacity of the International Space Station.

SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are all vying to fly paying passengers to such a hotel in low-Earth orbit for a few tens of millions of dollars — expensive for most but affordable to many. One could envision wealthy clientele rocketing off for a weeklong getaway in space, just long enough before the charms of zero-gravity begin to wear. Similarly, movie or music video producers could arrange for actors to shoot a scene in space and likely earn their ticket fare back from the publicity.

As the cost of access to space continues to fall, more elaborate space resorts may follow, perhaps as early as the 2030s, such as a rotating torus a few hundred feet in diameter providing artificial gravity along the edges for sleeping and dining, with a nonrotating core for zero-gravity play.

Traveling to the moon may not be that much more expensive, as most of the cost of space is simply getting in orbit. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced a plan in 2018 to send upwards of eight tourists and two crew members on a five-day trip around the moon, financed by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. The project, called #dearMoon, remains on target for the mid-2020s.

As with the space shuttles in 1981, the recent NASA SpaceX launch carried only two astronauts. But tagging along for the ride are the dreams of many who feel that, finally, the Space Age is truly upon us.

Christopher Wanjek (wanjek@gmail.com) is the author of “Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars and Beyond” (Harvard University Press, 2020).

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